“For us, it’s all about the singers. That’s what we do, that’s what we care about. There’s an emotional exchange with vocals, with people who are communicating to you with their voice, that’s very special and very rewarding.”
David Gibb is the President of the Opera Buffs, a non-profit organization on a mission to help young singers ford the gulf between graduation and being self-supporting with professional management. The Buffs provide performance opportunities (like their Carmen in Concert event this weekend) and give direct grants to cover essentials like classes, formal wear for concerts, and traveling to auditions.
Gibb says there are no strings attached to Opera Buffs’ grants – “it’s not like a student loan that they have to worry about paying back” – but grantees do need to have a connection to Southern California, whether it’s growing up here, living here now or attending a local college.
The Buffs first came together in 1983.
“So we pre-date the LA Opera,” says Gibb. “Initially, it was a couple people who got together and were giving money on their own. Then they decided to incorporate, get more funds together and begin to help in a bigger way.”
Gibbs says the Buffs sometimes support the same singer over a period of years, if they have “career potential” and are making progress. “We get to the know the singers quite well in many cases, and it’s a great pleasure to see kids come along and, all of a sudden, blossom and have major careers.”
The Opera Buffs have an illustrious list of alumni: Sandra Radvanovsky, who stunned audiences as Tosca last season at LA Opera; Charles Castronovo, who starred alongside Placido Domingo in LA Opera’s world premiere of Il Postino; Angela Meade, who is in not one but two productions at the Metropolitan Opera this upcoming season; Janai Brugger who went on to win both Placido Domingo’s Operalia competition and the Met Opera National Council Auditions, and who recently made her debut at the Royal Opera House in the UK.
And the list goes on—about 500 singers have received support from the Opera Buffs in the last 30+ years.
“I could have brought in a pile of letters, we get a lot of thanks back,” says Gibb. “We are, to my knowledge, the only organization that does this kind of thing that isn’t attached to a professional company or school.”
Established singers (like bass-baritone Rod Gilfrey), Buffs alumni (including Castronovo) and current grantees are appearing together this Sunday at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall in Carmen in Concert.
“We started out with singers just standing and singing arias and we realized that really wasn’t as useful to them as singing whole scenes, because then they’re interacting more with the audience and with each other, so it’s better training for them. The step beyond that is to do a whole opera, so they’re learning an entire role.” Some of the Carmen performers are taking on a role for the first time. For example, Charles Castronovo as Don Jose.
Kelly O’Connor stars at Carmen in Opera Buffs’ “Carmen in Concert”
In September when LA Opera opens their production of Bizet’s classic, mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor will be on stage in a secondary role, but on Sunday with the Buffs, she takes on Carmen, herself.
The Buffs’ Carmen won’t have all the trappings of an opera production, like sets and costumes. But…
“It’s a small hall, so people will be up close and personal, which you aren’t usually in an opera house. Beyond that, it’s really a chance to concentrate on the music and on the singing—their performances and their interpretations of the roles.”
Later this year, recently-discovered talent will take the stage at the Opera Buffs’ Fall 2017 Showcase (October 28th at Zipper Hall). Then on November 4th and again in the spring, the Buff’s will hold auditions to find new singers to support.
“We hear probably 60 or 70 singers a year. We want voice, presence and a sense of them being motivated to work towards a career. Much more is demanded of singers these days than twenty years ago—acting, dancing, swordplay, anything could be demanded of them. And managers aren’t directing their careers in the same way, they have to be self-motivated and be marketing themselves.”
Southern California is rich with talent, and the Buffs have been discovering the stars of tomorrow for decades. You can enjoy some of their discoveries (and one of the most popular operas out there) this Sunday at 2PM. For tickets to the Opera Buffs’ Carmen in Concert, click here.